WASHINGTON (AP) - The Supreme Court waded deeper into the death penalty debate Monday with a case that could overturn 800 death sentences nationally and another case seeking extra appeals for the condemned.
Death sentences in nine states could be affected by the court's ruling in the case of Timothy Stuart Ring, convicted of killing of an armored car driver during a robbery eight years ago.
The court is expected to decide by summer whether a defendant's constitutional right to a jury trial means that only a jury can make the crucial determinations that result in a death sentence. Currently, although juries are responsible for deciding guilt or innocence, judges decide the sentence in Arizona and eight other states. The case, said Ring's lawyer Andrew Hurwitz, raises ``the basic constitutional principle ... that before you're handed over to the state, for the state to impose whatever punishment it can, that a jury of your peers is afforded to you.'' Ring's is the fourth death penalty case the court has reviewed in the current term. None of the cases attacks the essential constitutionality of capital punishment, which is imposed in 38 states.
The court signaled its continued interest in the mechanics of the death penalty by agreeing to hear the appeal of Tennessee death row inmate Abu-Ali Abdur'Rahman, whose case has been championed by activists.
The case, which the court will hear next fall, could have far-reaching effects if the justices decide to loosen the rules for when condemned inmates can get new evidence before a judge.
Justices had blocked Abdur'Rahman's execution earlier this month and will now decide whether he can pursue appeals on new developments.
Other courts had ruled that it was too late for Abdur'Rahman to bring up new allegations that the state didn't turn over evidence as it should have, had made misleading statements and had improperly prepared witnesses.
His case returns the court to a subject that has troubled some of the justices: whether poor people facing a possible death sentence are getting good legal help.
One of his government-provided trial lawyers admitted that he did little to prepare for the trial or the sentencing. It was the attorney's first capital case.
His lawyers also relied on information from prosecutors that blood was found on Abdur'Rahman's clothing. The spots were paint.
O'Connor was the deciding vote as the court ruled 5-4 that the alleged conflict of interest was not enough to show that Walter Mickens was deprived of his right to an effective lawyer.
The court has not yet ruled in another case testing when death row inmates can make new claims that their original lawyer was inadequate.
The court's most watched death penalty case this year tests whether it is unconstitutional to execute the mentally retarded. The court had previously found the practice acceptable. Its latest ruling is also expected by summer.
The issue in Ring's case is whether a judge alone can determine the aggravating factors, such as the heinous nature of a murder or whether it was committed for monetary gain, necessary in some states for a death sentence.
After the jury in Ring's trial was dismissed, the judge heard testimony at a sentencing hearing from an accomplice who said Ring planned the robbery and murdered the guard. The judge then determined that the aggravating factors warranted death.
The Arizona Supreme Court rejected Ring's constitutional challenge last year. The state has 128 people on death row.
Idaho and Montana have systems like Arizona's, where a single judge decides the sentence. Idaho has 21 people on death row, and Montana has six. In four states, juries recommend life or death. A judge makes the final call in those states: Florida, with 386 people on death row; Alabama with 188; Indiana with 39 and Delaware with 19.
In Colorado, with six people on death row, and Nebraska, with seven, a panel of judges makes the sentencing decision.
Nationwide, there are about 3,700 people on death row.
The case is Ring v. Arizona, 01-488.